Marketing through the ages: The 2000s bring the dilemmas of digital

As part of our 40th birthday celebration, we asked previous editors to sum up marketing and Marketing Week during their time at the helm. Ruth Mortimer was editor in the early 2010s as the impact of digital led to real challenges over scale versus consolidation of power, audience versus context and personal versus personalisation.

2000s marketing timeline

The story of marketing over the past decade is one of enormous contradiction. Our story takes place in a globalised world – connected by the internet – where it is possible to reach a global audience at mass scale with messages designed for each individual.

But wait! It’s not just that tale. There is another contradictory narrative. It is the story of consumers drowning in choice, in competing marketing messages and becoming increasingly aware of the value and power of their data. But hey, a bit of contradiction only makes things more interesting for marketers, doesn’t it?

Things in 2018 are neither good nor bad for marketers; they are both challenging and brilliant. But at least they are not the worst of all things: boring.

Looking back to the turn of the millennium, I’m going to set out a few of the largest marketing contractions of the past 18 years.

Opportunity vs implementation

Digital has offered great opportunity, but also great challenges. A few years ago, Scott Brinker (creator of the chief marketing technologist blog) described technology growth as exponential while organisational change remained logarithmic.

In simple terms, this means that technology development occurs faster than we can implement it. Organisations simply cannot change their processes or culture fast enough to take on the benefits of new technology.

The more brands’ technology stacks expand, the more people become involved in purchase decisions. Marketers have an incredible selection of channels and tools available to them but can they take advantage of them? Their companies aren’t set up to make the best use of them, nor do marketers themselves have the skills to use them. Ninety-five per cent of marketing leaders report being negatively impacted by the lack of qualified talent in the digital marketing space, according to data from TEKsystems Digital.

So while opportunities presented by new channels and real-time technology have defined the past decade, it appears that marketers and their brands have not adapted fast enough to fully benefit.

Scale vs consolidation of power

The growth in digital media and automation offers scale and growth but the rise of GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) has consolidated immense scale and power in a few companies. These companies control the majority of advertising spend and eyeballs, and have immense data on consumers. Google and Facebook alone collected 63% of all US advertising spend in 2017.

2010s marketing timeline

Marketers have access to a global audience in a way that would have been impossible just a decade before, but the relationship with them is often held by GAFA. This means marketers are at risk of losing their connection to the audience on these platforms when an algorithm is changed. In February this year, publisher LittleThings shut down just weeks after Facebook implemented a news feed change, citing lost visibility for its content.

For marketers, GAFA offer targeted advertising and audience profiling at a scale never seen before, but the flipside of this is that the access to this audience and the tools involved are owned by just a few, increasingly powerful organisations.

Media reach vs social reach

As Google, Amazon and Facebook have achieved such enormous global scale, our relationship with information has also changed. Consumers no longer look only to traditional media sources for their information. Huge numbers absorb information through Twitter and Facebook rather than The Times or The Mirror.

While the term ‘social influencer’ might make you cringe and think of pouting Instagram models, it’s big business. Digital influencers represented the largest majority group that brands have worked with for endorsement and commercial opportunities in 2017, according to Celebrity Intelligence’s Age of Influence report. For every £1 spent on a talent-led campaign, brands are getting an average of £17.21 back, meaning it’s an ROI that seems more attractive than many traditional advertising options.

Will contradictions and complications define the next decade of marketing? In a world where nothing stays the same, we have to embrace the hope that it will get better.

However, although new types of information and influencer may give marketers more ways to reach consumers than ever before, consumer trust is declining. Outside of a traditional media environment, attention-grabbing, shareable content can work better than accurate or unbiased information.

While media brands are legally responsible for their content, the unregulated social space has allowed fake news to thrive. Seventy-nine per cent of respondents to a Morning Consult study admitted they had at least once started to read a story before realising it was fake news.

In some senses, fake news is a triumph of marketing over facts. Fake news works on the principle that people are more engaged by an emotional message they want to believe than anything else. But it’s also unregulated, often untrue and damages consumer trust in what they see online, which is bad news for marketers.

Audience vs context

Let’s not forget programmatic buying and automation. Again, an enormous contradiction for marketers. The promise of programmatic is the ability to scale your advertising and find the right audience, wherever they may be. It focuses on finding the right people but not on the context of the information.

Although marketers have benefitted enormously from automation, the brand safety issues seen over the past couple of years show that context still matters. Hamish Nicklin, chief revenue officer at The Guardian, gave me the best example of the value of context a couple of years ago at an event: he joked that if Rolex just wanted eyeballs, it should probably advertise in a man’s urinal in a bar in The City of London.

Of course, Nicklin continued, Rolex would never do this because the context is so wrong. Rolex needs context to maintain its luxury positioning. It can’t be seen advertising in a urinal, regardless of the volume of affluent men it might reach. His point was that context always matters.

Personal vs personalisation

As technology allows for greater personalisation, this offers an opportunity for one-to-one relationships. In its purest form, personalisation is about opening up customer-centric conversations. Nearly half of those in the millennial age group expect to see brands present customised offers for them; the figure is nearly a third for UK adults as a whole, according to American Express research.

However, the contradiction here is that consumers are not consistent. They want personalisation when it improves the experience for them, but should it only benefit marketers they have little interest. As many as 63% said they wanted to see less targeted advertising in the future in a recent Reuters survey, while just 9% wanted more.

Will contradictions and complications define the next decade of marketing? The great American journalist Sydney J Harris said: “Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.” In a world where nothing stays the same, we have to embrace the hope that it will get better.

Ruth Mortimer was Marketing Week editor from 2012 to 2015 and is now managing partner for digital products at Econsultancy